To Bush, Images of Gaza Dead Show Need for Speedy Withdrawal

If Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was wondering how much time the White House would give him to come up with a new exit strategy from Gaza, the answer came last week: As little as it takes to wipe those awful photos off the front pages.

The Bush administration’s swift and tough reaction to Israeli tank fire that killed at least seven Palestinian protesters — including four children — in the southern Gaza Strip on May 19 made it clear that Bush sees Israel’s presence in Gaza as an albatross around the neck of U.S. and Israeli interests.

Israel’s operations in the Palestinian refugee camp of Rafah, on the Gaza-Egypt border, which were aimed at uncovering arms-smuggling tunnels and clearing out sniper nests, “have worsened the humanitarian situation and resulted in confrontations between Israeli forces and Palestinians, and have not, we believe, enhanced Israel’s security,” a White House statement said.

The United States also allowed to pass a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s operations in Gaza and demanding “the complete cessation” of house demolitions in the Rafah refugee camp.

Usually, the U.S. delegation vetoes such resolutions — especially if they fail to mention the Palestinian terrorism that elicits Israeli incursions — but this time the United States merely abstained.

That in itself was significant: A Security Council “demand” to end home demolitions could carry the force of international law.

Israeli diplomats were not worried. Arye Mekel, Israel’s deputy permanent representative at the United Nations, called it an “isolated case” reflecting the intensity of international criticism of the killings.

The same Jewish and pro-Israel groups that exulted last week in Bush’s speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, where Bush likened Israel’s war on terrorism to the United States’ own, were taken aback.

“The United States abstained on the final vote, sending an inconsistent and inappropriate message,” said Bernice Manocherian, AIPAC’s president. “The United States must maintain its consistent policy of vetoing one-sided anti-Israel resolutions.”

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said the U.N. resolution was especially galling coming just weeks after terrorists in Gaza murdered a pregnant woman and her four small children.

“A family was killed at point-blank range, and there was no Security Council resolution,” Hoenlein said. “Here, almost a similar number was killed, and the whole world rises in indignation.”

Pro-Israel lobbyists were unlikely to draw succor from Democrats in Congress, usually eager to exploit wedges between the president and Jewish voters in an election year.

A senior Democratic staffer on Capitol Hill said Bush needed to make a strong statement because of U.S. national security interests.

Bush is in an especially sensitive position in the Middle East. His hopes of handing over Iraq to civilian rule next month have been frustrated by increased insurgency, a prison abuse scandal and the deaths of some 40 Iraqi civilians in a U.S. airstrike on what Iraqis said was a wedding party.

“He had to do something,” said the staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “How could we not? This is a case where, through no fault of its own, what Israel has done not only threatens Israel’s self-interest but America’s self-interest.”

Furthermore, the bloodshed in Gaza has not helped efforts by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to bring Arab allies of the United States on board for the Iraqi transition.

Sharon presented a withdrawal plan to Bush last month, in return winning important U.S. commitments on Palestinian refugees and Israel’s West Bank land claims. But Sharon’s ruling Likud Party later rejected the plan.

Sharon has said he is working on a new plan but has not set a firm deadline to present it, frustrating U.S. officials. Egypt has said it is ready to step up security on its Gaza border once Israel leaves, but Egyptian officials say any such plans are on hold until Sharon announces a new proposal.

Getting a Gaza withdrawal plan out in the open would help erase the images of Palestinians rushing dead and wounded children to ambulances, administration officials suggested.

The news in Gaza “shows that there is a considerable amount of conflict and friction that would be reduced by an Israeli disengagement along the lines of the one we discussed,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said May 20.

“These events in fact serve as a grim reminder of the wisdom of Israel disengaging from Gaza,” said Ambassador James Cunningham, the deputy U.S. representative to the United Nations.

Israelis said they understood the U.S. need to face down Arab pressure.

“They thought that this was the right opportunity to send a message of even-handedness,” Mekel said.

Mekel even saw a bright side: Palestinian representatives at the United Nations did not undertake their usual efforts to toughen the resolution, reflecting the success of recent U.S. efforts urging the Palestinians to assume control in the Gaza Strip after Israel withdraws.

If anything, the debacle shows the need for a reliable Palestinian Authority security force to be in place when Israel withdraws. Israeli forces should be replaced by “reformed Palestinian security forces that will — and must — themselves act to stop smuggling and halt terrorism,” Cunningham said.

Israeli officials need to make clearer how they plan to hand over such authority to the Palestinians, said Jess Hordes, Washington director of the Anti-Defamation League.

“It underscores the need, the problems the security vacuum would create in the event of a withdrawal without something to replace it,” he said.

UNRWA, the U.N. agency that administers assistance to the Palestinian refugees who form the bulk of Rafah’s residents, said a clear post-withdrawal transition to Palestinian rule is essential to ensure stability.

“No amount of economic aid is going to make Gaza viable” without security, said Maher Nasser, the UNRWA liaison to the United Nations.

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